*Growing a Backyard Orchard*
25 June 2015
I like fruit trees because they add a perennial addition to a garden. My backyard orchard consists of peaches, pears, plums, pluots, apples, cherries, figs and an almond - 30 trees – all in a standard suburban backyard. They are all about five years old and all have been bearing bountiful harvests of yummy edibles for several years. Here's my FNV:
Planning Your Orchard
Tree spacing recommendations are usually based on canopy size and are best suited for commercial growers. In a backyard orchard, root size determines the density of plantings. Normally, 18" to 36" is all that is needed.
Plan your planting scheme: Most of my trees are espaliered against a 6' tall privacy fence, 8' apart. This means that all branches get good sunlight for maximum fruit production and I can easily protect the fruit from birds so that none is lost. I also have trees planted in a hedgerow near the driveway planted 36" apart and I have a large circle, with five trees, each planted 18" apart.
Plant a variety of fruit trees close together rather than having an area dedicated to just, as an example, apples. A polyculture reduces pests and problems.
Each fruit has different varieties. You are familiar with Granny Smith Apples, Red Delicious Apples and Honey Crisp Apples. There are 100's of apple varieties. Most fruits require two different varieties planted near (within 20') each other for pollination. Make sure the varieties you choose pollinate each other. The nursery will suggest pollinators.
Varieties harvest at different times. By becoming aware of harvest times, it's possible to have successive ripening - so all your apples don't ripen at the same, short period of time. A better plan is to plant an early season, a mid season and a late season variety. As one example the Dorsett Golden Apple ripens July through August, the Fuji ripens from August through October and Granny Smith from October thru January (or until your first hard frost).
"Chill hours" is the number of hours per year your area averages temps below 45F. While your USDA growing zone tells the coldest average temperature, "chill hours" tells how long it stays cold. Most fruit trees have a required chill hours to fruit. Without chill hours, the tree will grow, but it won't produce. Chill hours is probably the number one determining factor for choosing a variety that will produce well in your area.
Most fruit trees are grafted. The "fruit tree" is joined to the rootstock, grafting it in such a way so that the two trees grow as one.
Rootstock may be dwarf size, a semi-dwarf or a standard tree. Regardless of the rootstock, the tree will yield regular, standard sized fruit. A dwarf tree will normally grow to about 8' in height. A semi-dwarf to 15' and a standard could go to 30'. You can buy a Red Delicious Apple on dwarf, semi or standard rootstock.
You would think that a dwarf is preferable in your backyard, but actually a semi-dwarf generally lives longer, is healthier and produces more abundantly. The semi dwarf can be pruned to maintain any height that is desired. I buy semi-dwarf trees and maintain them with pruning to 8' tall.
Buying, Planting, Maintenance and Care
Decide on your planting scheme: espalier, hedgerow or multiple trees in one hole – that way you know how many trees you can orchard.
Decide on your preferred varieties and rootstock size considering succession ripening.
For best overall selection and success buy trees in the fall. The second best time is in very early spring, as soon as your soil is no longer frozen. You'll find best prices are during season "closeout" sales usually in early summer, but selection is poor. Some nurseries offer "pruning" for a slight extra charge. This is money well spent as it means the pro's have done your first pruning. I never invest in the specialty fertilizers; I find that a general 10-10-10 is fine.
I usually purchase online. I usually buy trees around the $19 - $25 mark, which is usually about 4' tall and usually two years old. In the fall, trees arrive "bare root" which means they are a single whip, with no leaves and they look dead. Trees are dormant during shipping and handling. No worries, they will come alive in the spring.
Get those trees out of the box and into dirt immediately. Roots are probably wrapped in wet newspaper and covered in plastic so the roots don't dry out … but neither do you want roots to rot in that wet paper. If you can't get them into the ground right away at least get them into a pot of dirt. I killed three fairly expensive quince trees this year – I just got busy and didn't unbox them until ten days after they arrived. None lived.
Choose an area with full sun and good drainage.
If your planting area doesn't have good drainage, build a 9-12" tall raised bed and plant in the bed.
Plant same rootstock close together. If you plant a standard rootstock close to a dwarf, the standard will smother its smaller cousin.
Plant trees that have similar water and care requirements close together, just to make it easier on yourself.
Dig a hole twice the width of the rootstock. Do NOT add fertilizer when planting a bare root tree.
Notice where the tree is grafted – the grafting bulb is usually 2" to 4" above ground. Follow the planting instructions that come with your tree.
After planting and watering in, cut the tree to about 18" – I know this is hard to do - but it starts the tree branching at a lower height.
Place irrigation about 12" – 15" out from the trunk to encourage roots to spread out. Add 2" to 4" of mulch.
Place a tree guard around the tree to protect it from weed-whacking in summer and small animals that like to chew on small trees in winter. You can purchase special tree guards for about $3 each but I have been equally happy using 4" plastic drain pipe. 10' of pipe is about $7 at Lowes. Cut 9" long pieces and slice each piece down the length.
Prune twice a year. In the summer of year #1, prune away half of the new growth. This encourages new branching. In the winter of year #1 prune half of the new growth with an eye toward a pleasing shape for your tree. Maintaining a good shape makes it easier to care for. I maintain trees no more than 8' tall. This is as tall as I can maintain and harvest without standing on a ladder. I don't like ladders.
During summer months you may need insecticide soap sprayed onto branches and leaves. I spray every two weeks, focusing on the undersides of leaves. Purchased insecticide soap can be expensive ($10 for 24 oz) so I DIY by adding ¼ cup vegetable oil, a little cayenne pepper and two heaping tablespoons Fels-Naptha soap to enough water to fill a 5-gal garden sprayer. It takes about 30 minutes to spray the orchard.
During winter, you may need a dormant spray. This is a one-time spraying. Depending on your area, you might need a spray that coats over-wintering insects living in the bark with a suffocating layer of oil. Or, another type of dormant spray is lime-sulfur, used to kill overwintering fungus. My area has the fungus. The spray I use costs $25 for my entire orchard and takes about two hours to apply. Check with a local nursery or your county extension office if a dormant spray is needed in your area.
Depending on the size of the tree when purchased, most will bear a little fruit their second summer/fall after being after planted. Standby for robust yields starting in year three.
Once trees begin fruiting, protect your harvest from birds. A roll of 100' x 14' bird netting cost me $15 at Lowes this spring. Netting is reusable for several years. Roll out the netting after the first signs of baby fruit. Don't wait.
After year five irrigation is no longer needed, root systems are established and can find needed water. Planning drip irrigation so that you can remove emitters from around mature trees will save water.
After about year five, you'll feel remorse – wishing you'd planted so-and-so "over there instead of here". This usually happens when a tree was not pruned properly and growth is out of control. It's OK to transplant a dormant tree within the first two growing seasons but my attempts at digging up a tree after five years has never been successful. Their root systems are just too much for a homeowner without special equipment. Cut the tree down and plant a new one where you want it.
That's about all there is to it. Mother Nature does all the hard work, Hubby does the harvesting and I bake the pies. This year I hope to add a moringa tree as well as quince to replace the ones previously deceased. In my opinion, fruit trees are more satisfying and less trouble than vegetables.
I have purchased trees at Home Depot, Lowes and Wal-Mart as well as my local nurseries. They all do well. Here is a list of online nurseries I have enjoyed buying from. Get on their email list for advance notification of seasonal availability and discount coupons. Order early.
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